FOI: So who is wasting time really? FOI requesters or the Local Government Association?

Remember this FOI press release from the Local Government Association, the publicly-funded lobbying body for local councils in the UK?

FOI campaignI wrote about it back in August, asking why the Local Government Association, which proved itself utterly ineffective at getting the Con/Lib coalition to listen to it when this Government’s spending cuts were being planned in the summer of 2010, was so interested in flagging up extreme examples of FOI use.

There is, of course, a back story here. It involves many councils and councillors – the very people who make up the membership of the LGA – getting the hump at being held to account by FOI.

A decade of restricting access to information via the introduction of private sector-like management processes (perfectly acceptable in the private sector, less so when you’re a public body funded by compulsory taxes) and changes to public meetings had resulted in councillors being able to make more and more decisions behind closed doors with very limited public discussion of issues which mattered to local people.

FOI, of course, changed that to an extent, and on this blog over the years I’ve documented various examples of councils waving an angry fist at FOI and claiming its costing money which could go on meals on wheels, schools or filling potholes – all of which are generally untrue.

Ampp3d brilliantly worked out that moaning Staffordshire County Council’s FOI bill was 0.0003% of its budget – not a high price for democracy.

But for the LGA to put out a press release highlighting the problem of ‘nuisance’ FOI requests must surely suggest that there was a groundswell of negativity about FOI, and demands from councils across the country for action to be taken, right?

It would appear not. An FOI request – of all things – to Rossendale Council, one of those named in the LGA press release as receiving ‘wacky’ and ‘bizarre’ FOI requests would suggest it was the LGA which planted the seed in the minds of officers, via an email bulletin:

unusual foisHardly the sort of request which would lead someone to assume a press release lamenting ‘nuisance’ FOI requests was going to be triggered, is it?

The requester also asked Rossendale for any communication between the council and the LGA on how the information would be used. The only email supplied was one outlining Rossendale’s answer to original appeal for information to the LGA. What’s more, the council was also asked if it had received had any communication with the LGA over FOIs in the last 12 months. It said it hadn’t.

It certainly doesn’t appear that Rossendale has an issue with FOI or wanted the LGA to name it as being worried about FOI.

But what about the cost?

The two examples Rossendale provided the LGA with were about exorcisms and holes in cubicle walls in public toilets. The LGA argues that such FOIs are expensive to deal with and, yes, the money could be spent on something else. So how much work went into them?

rossendale1So it sounds like a quick chat with two different departments. It’s clear from the fact Rossendale put forward just a couple of incidents that this is hardly a big problem for the council, nor did either FOI request divert resources from emptying the bins, repairing street lights and so on.

In fact, when you add up all the information released in this FOI request, it’s hard to conclude anything other than the LGA actively wasting the time of hard-pressed councils at a time when councils are the first to say they are tight on time and money thanks to the local government cuts many argue the LGA didn’t do enough to fight against.

Which, for a body which is paid for from the public purse, seems to be a very poor do indeed.

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